48 hours ago, Syracuse was putting the finishing touches on a 73-59 loss in the Carrier Dome to Georgia Tech, an ACC cellar dweller that was set to be the fifth team to beat the Orange this season.
Picked as a preseason top 20 team, Syracuse had already lost to Oregon, UConn, Buffalo and Old Dominion on the season, the latter two on their home court. So the Orange, once again, find themselves in a tough spot when it comes to the NCAA tournament.
And, to absolutely no one’s surprise, Jim Boeheim and company seem to have found their way out of the hole that they dug for themselves. On Monday night, the Orange went into Cameron Indoor Stadium and knocked off the Blue Devils, 95-91, in overtime. Tyus Battle led the way for the Orange with 32 points and four assists while Elijah Hughes added 20 points and Franklin Howard chipped in with 16 points and five assists.
Cam Reddish did not play for Duke — he’s battling an illness — and Tre Jones left the game with 14 minutes left in the first half after suffering a shoulder injury, but that does not matter one iota for the Orange. The NCAA tournament selection committee doesn’t take into consideration who was injured for the teams you beat, so on Selection Sunday, Syracuse is going to have a road win against a top three team*, and that may very well end up being the best win that anyone in the country has this year.
So, like I said, this is a game-changer for the Orange, the kind of win that is going to just about ensure that they are in the NCAA tournament field as long as they don’t do anything stupid the rest of the season.
That asterisk, however, is important.
Because at this point, there is no guarantee that Tre Jones is going to be back this season.
After the game, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters that Jones did not break his collarbone, which was the initial fear when he went down the way he did, but that he sprained his shoulder. He was questionable to return for this game, but he was in too much pain to make it back onto the floor. So that is good news.
The bad news is that K also told reporters that Jones will be out “a while,” and Duke later send out a release confirming that Jones separated the AC joint in his shoulder and that he is “out indefinitely”.
His absence totally changes this Duke team.
I’m not going to say that Tre Jones is the most valuable player on this Duke team because he’s not. Zion Williamson is, and R.J. Barrett is probably second in line. But Jones is the most indispensable, because no one else on the roster can provide the things that he provides.
Offensively, he is the guy that sets the table, the player that initiates offense and sets the table for the rest of the roster. Against this vaunted Syracuse zone, he’s the guy that would have been able to get into the lane and create, although I’m not sure that would have mattered on a night where the Blue Devils shot 9-for-43 from three.
It’s on the defensive end of the floor where he changes games, and if you don’t believe me, just look at the six minutes where he actually played. When Jones was injured, he already had four steals, Syracuse had only scored four points and Duke was already leading this game 14-4. We know Duke struggles in the halfcourt against teams that are willing to dare them to shoot and that have the length to clog the lane, and losing the free points that Jones would have created simply by forcing turnovers and getting easy buckets in transition is the difference between losing to Syracuse in overtime and beating Texas Tech by 11.
It’s Tre Jones. There is no one else on the roster that can do the things he does, and Duke cannot win a national title if he cannot return from this injury before the tournament starts.
And if you didn’t understand how indispensable he is for this Duke team before Monday night, you do now.